Friday, September 21, 2007

Finding meaning

Gifts come in many disguises. Yesterday, I received a gift of wisdom from an unexpected quarter.

He hesitates before walking into the room. TV cameras are set up, their seeing eyes focused on the podium at which invited guests will soon dispense the wisdom found when asking the homeless clients at the shelter questions about their experiences with crime. He doesn't say much. Walks up to me slowly, his ambling gate, bowed legs a tribute to his tribe's once proud heritage as horseman riding freely across the prairies. Today, his people are scattered across the land or trapped on a reservation, searching for their past, their identity, their place to belong.

Oscar has found his place, for now, in a homeless shelter. But, he's searching for a way out. It's why he's come today to speak up, he tells me, when he shakes my hand and peers into my eyes.

"Remember me," he asks. "I told you one day that your Lisa Minelli smile makes me smile too."

I laughed and nodded my head. "I remember you, Oscar. I'm so glad you came today."

"I want to speak. Is that okay?" and he motions to the cameras and reporters gathered at the back of the room.

"Absolutely. When it's time, I'll call you to the podium and you can share your story."

As the press conference unfolds I see Oscar's face peeking out from the back row where he is seated. I can tell he's listening intently, focusing on every word that's being said. He nods his head in agreement, scrunches up his face, purses his lips in concentration when something bothers him, and then he sits still, not moving a muscle, when something touches him deeply.

Finally, it's his turn to speak.

He ambles slowly up to the podium, steps up behind the mic and looks out at the crowd.

"We've heard a lot about the crime you expect on the street," he says, his voice steady, slow, assured. "We've heard lots about the violence you can see. The assaults and robberies. But, what about the violence you can't see? What about the beating down of someone's spirit? What about the robbing of your dignity?"

You could hear a pin drop. The cameras stopped whirring. Reporters stopped scribbling. Oscar had their attention.

For the next fifteen minutes, Oscar told stories of a simple life, but not a simple man. A man who will lend a buddy twenty dollars and then is confused and hurt when the buddy denies ever being given a loan. He talked of being 'half-corked' in the bar and feeling good because he's got money in his pocket and sharing his wealth with those around him only to be denied entry to the same bar the next night when he returned without a cent. He talked about walking down the street and having strangers chastise him for being who he is, for being Native, or homeless, jobless, nameless.

He spoke about a man who in spite of the treatment he's been given still searches for meaning, for the best in those around him.

His was not a story of a proud heritage, but it was a story of a man who proudly shared his truth without fear of being anyone other than who he is.

When Oscar was finished he sat down to applause from everyone gathered in the room. As the reporters gathered up their cameras and microphones Oscar came up to me and asked me how he could help the shelter build a safer environment for its clients. "I want to be involved. I got a lot to say," he said. "A lot of wisdom I want to share. I hear things. See things. I know things. And nobody ever asks me what I know. They only tell me what they think."

How true.

Most often, when people are on the other side of the street, we don't stop and listen. Most often, we make immediate judgements about who they are, what they're doing, why they're doing it, and assume we know the answers that will fix them.

Oscar taught me yesterday that my answers are only as good as the questions I ask. My answers only have meaning when they are founded in listening to what others have to say.

The question is: Where do you get your answers? Are you willing to listen for meaning in what others have to say before sharing what you know?

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